Cur Deus Homo I.6-10

(continuing from the initial stages of the dialogue in CDH I.3-5)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?” (CDH I.1)

I have mixed feelings about presenting the next block of chapters in Cur Deus Homo.  On the one hand I regard these chapters as a messy excursus that adds very little to the overall argument of the book.  As a result I don’t teach these chapters to my students, instead skipping directly to the theory of justice and satisfaction St. Anselm presents in chapter eleven.  If this series were merely a codification of my teaching, I would do the same here.

However, I’m also making the claim that St. Anselm is not particularly interested in the question of how God saves humanity from sin and death.  To skip any part of the text suggests something shifty about my claim, as if I were cooking the books.  Even more importantly, Anselm and Boso discuss Christ’s death and so at least appear to raise some issues about the mechanics of salvation.  Perhaps I only draw the conclusions I do because I skip these chapters!

Anselm and Boso do address some issues relating to my main claim as well as some useful matters of method for the rest of the book.  Rather than straw-manning St. Anselm or giving the appearance thereof, and since these chapters do have a charm of their own, I’ll go ahead and give a commentary on them here.  Keep in mind that this is “untaught analysis”–nothing like the endlessly repeated, student-questioned material from the other sections of text I have covered already or will in the future.

In theory that means this will be a shorter post!

Complicated Relationship To An Older Theory

In responding to Anselm’s conclusion in chapter five, Boso is given the longest continuous speaking part in the entire book.  All of chapters six and seven are Boso the student proposing and then answering challenges at great length.  It almost appears that St. Anselm has abandoned the dialogue format, or that he intended to convert this lengthy section into dialogue and forgot to do so before publishing the book.

Of course we need not conclude that St. Anselm is sloppy here.  By ceding the floor to his student Anselm allows for an entire theory and its refutation to be put on the table without explicit endorsement on his part.  Boso spends pages summarizing the older Patristic account of the Devil’s title to the service of the human race.  While Anselm does not directly attack that account, he does not directly refute Boso’s criticisms of it either.  This is a deliberate, veiled (?) critique of a popular aspect of the Catholic tradition that St. Anselm finds inadequate, at least for answering the question of the book.

The critiques that come out of Boso’s long account are the familiar ones from earlier in the book: the problems of omnipotence and justice.

On the one hand an elaborate theory of God depriving the Devil of his rights over the human race seems to imply that God has to labor–to work hard, to toil–in order to bring about the salvation of the  human race.  That seems unbecoming His divine omnipotence.  Why can’t God solve this problem with the same effortless exercise of divine power that He uses to create the universe, by a mere word?

On the other hand the “Devil’s rights” theory seems to imply a defective account of justice.  How can the Devil, wholly unjust in every way, have a just claim to something?  Why isn’t it appropriate for God to take the human race from this renegade by force?  There’s a big difference between “the human race deserves punishments and torments” and “the Devil justly punishes and torments the human race.”  The older account seems to make a hash out of this.

Anselm’s half-hearted defense of the older theory against Boso–that whatever God does must by definition be reasonable–carries no water for the outsider critics Boso represents.  Once Boso challenges him on this, Anselm shifts the argument to address potential problems with his own theory that he’s about to give in future chapters.

First Anselm makes a safe appeal to the Symbol of Chalcedon, the bedrock of Christian orthodoxy concerning the person and natures of Jesus Christ.  Any challenge or difficulty that we may want to express in the earthly work of Jesus Christ must be attributed to His human nature, not to His divine nature.  Omnipotent beings can’t labor; the challenge or difficulty is expressed purely from our perspective or the limits of human nature.

The second issue, concerning justice, sparks a lengthy exchange that touches upon the main theme of this series: the means by which God saves the human race.  Is this where I have to start walking back my opening claim?

Death…But Why?

While it is certainly true that Anselm and Boso trade words for nearly three full chapters about the death of Jesus and take for granted that his death somehow is what saves us, there is no discussion of how or why this is the case.  It is merely part of the background problem of demonstrating the rationality of the Christian faith.

The actual topic of consideration is again the question of God’s justice.  Boso wants to know how it can be justice for an innocent man to be put to death so as to save the guilty; more importantly how can God be just for willing such a thing.  Turning it into a question of how such a death saves us quite apart from St. Anselm’s concern at this stage.

Consider Anselm’s immediate answer to Boso: God did not coerce Jesus to die; on the contrary Jesus died of his own volition (ipse sponte sua mortem sustinuit).  The rest of their argument in these chapters is over the interpretation of the Scriptural passages that seem to suggest otherwise.  Anselm offers no fewer than three alternative readings here and explicitly claims that there are many more.  In the first of the three he even implies that Christ’s death is accidental to his primary work, but then goes on to other interpretations where the death seems more central. When Boso takes the reins again his counter is that God should not even permit such a thing; he even states that “it is not clear why that death prevails unto saving humankind” (nec apparet quid mors illa valeat ad salvandum hominem).

These are not the marks of a man building a theoretical account of the mechanism of salvation!

[I might add my extreme annoyance that the Oxford World’s Classics translation renders quid as “how” in that line.  Talk about traduttore, traditore!]

Words on Method

If these chapters aid in understanding the primary argument of Cur Deus Homo, it is by elaborating on the theme of justice which will be the central focus of the remaining book.  Boso’s final worries unite to it the problem of sin and guilt; both parties agree that understanding the problem of sin and its injustice will be the primary task of the next phase of the argument.  Without this, Anselm cannot segue into the theory that has made him so famous.

Still, this seems to me an unnecessary or at least unnecessarily long section of text.  The problems of sin and justice have already been raised in chapter four; their elaboration here in chapters six through ten is not exactly a model of focus and precision.  In his effort to incorporate and perhaps repudiate an older theory, St. Anselm has made this part of the book ungainly.  It’s a lot of work just to get to a relatively simple set of conclusions for moving forward.  Anselm brings things back around to justice, order, and beauty at the end, just like he always wanted, but it’s not clear that such a digression was necessary in the first place.

There is one last agreement between Anselm and Boso that deserves some small comment from a teacher’s perspective.  Extricating themselves from the tangle of Scriptural interpretations in the previous chapters, the teacher and student agree to proceed from here on as though the Incarnation had never happened–that is, no recourse can be had to the teachings of Christ or anything caused by Him and His work.  Boso’s agreement to this, like my students’, is somewhat naive.  Anselm will exploit this concession, which initially seems like a handicap in Boso’s favor, to great rhetorical effect in later chapters.

What I find fascinating as a teacher of this text is just how difficult this is for my students to comprehend.  This kind of counterfactual reasoning–if no Christ, then no…x–is a kind of abstraction that should not be taken for granted.  It is not simple.  At every turn at least one student will try to chime in with something directly from the life of Christ as a solution to the problem, and they struggle to see how that is borrowing against the future, stealing conclusions to serve as premises in a circular argument.  In some ways Boso is at his least believable as a student when he graciously accepts the terrible straits into which Anselm puts him.  Then again, logic training was better in those days…

In a way St. Anselm is trying to do something shocking: provide a natural theology of the Incarnation.  In Monologion and Proslogion he set aside the data of revelation and argued for the existence of God and divine attributes using reason alone.  That approach is a famous hallmark of the Catholic tradition and teaching it is both necessary and joyous.  But in Cur Deus Homo St. Anselm may be going a bridge too far.  How can we do a natural Christology?  Doesn’t this come to the heart of the Faith and depend entirely on the data of revelation?  For now we’ll leave this question unanswered and revisit at the end of the book.

A Messy Reset

All of that is to say, at the end of chapter ten Anselm and Boso have executed a kind of messy reset to their discussion.  The important ideas probably could have been incorporated into the earlier chapters more elegantly and briefly.  The dialogue format suffers quite a bit here.  The discussion about the reason-based approach is buried in a tangle of Scriptural interpretations.

On the other hand, this messiness does capture the feel of a real-life conversation.  Without careful planning, our own discussions of weighty matters are typically free-flowing and inefficient.  There are many side-lines to pursue and sometimes we come off track doing so.  St. Anselm has a lot of ground he wants to cover; in this section he gives a bit more flight to his fancy than he should.

We now stand on the precipice of the main argument of the book.  Time for another obnoxious reminder:

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?”

Anselm’s one-word answer to this question?  Justice.  The Incarnation was the only way to solve the problem of justice caused by sin.

What’s that mean?  Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Cur Deus Homo I.6-10

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